Catarina de Albuquerque: “I believe the greatest barrier to achieving SDG 6 is political”
July 28 is the anniversary of UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”. Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO of Sanitation and Water for All (SWA), was the first UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation from 2008 to 2014. She was a key actor to ensure this right was realized in the UN General Assembly and included in the Sustainable Development Goals. In this interview she reflects on the progress towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation, and the path ahead.
July 28 will mark 12 years since the UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 which recognized water and sanitation as human rights. You were instrumental in ensuring this right was realized in the UNGA and also included in the Sustainable Development Goals. Can you explain its significance?
The significance of this resolution cannot be underestimated. It confirms and elevates all the work that had been done in the previous eight years, defining and clarifying what the human rights to water and sanitation are, and why they are important.
This resolution confirms that all countries recognize water and sanitation as human rights, bringing significant obligations to States to take steps to realize the rights
Rather than just being seen as human ‘needs’, or as a matter of charity subject to the shifting whims of those with more resources and more power, this resolution confirms that all countries recognize water and sanitation as human rights, bringing significant obligations to States to take steps to realize the rights.
These obligations include not only the definition of specific standards for the human rights to water and sanitation on issues such as quality and affordability, but also on how services must be delivered, through the human rights principles of participation, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination and sustainability.
The recognition of the human rights was also an important influence in how the Sustainable Development Goals were developed and defined
Recognition of these human rights places water and sanitation on the same footing as education, health and food. States must prioritize sufficient funds to ensure that everyone has adequate access, with a focus on the most marginalized and vulnerable people.
The recognition of the human rights was also an important influence in how the Sustainable Development Goals were developed and defined. Targets 6.1 and 6.2 on the Sustainable Development Goals require not just universal access to safely managed water and sanitation, as set out by the human rights, but additionally specify that vulnerable people must be prioritized. Previous to this, the global goals stopped short of ensuring access for everyone, instead calling for a percentage reduction in the number of people without access. This incentivized approaches that focused on those who were the easiest to deliver services to, rather than ensuring access to people who are excluded from service provision due to where they live or who they are. The SDGs are grounded in an understanding of human rights, where addressing discrimination and the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable people is the priority.
What is your assessment of the progress made in the 12 years that have passed since the resolution?
The resolution has been making waves in many different ways, and as a result of the resolution twelve years ago, the human rights to water and sanitation are increasingly referred to by all stakeholder groups as a leading justification for improving access to water and sanitation for all.
Our sector is continually working to ensure that we strengthen systems, that good governance structures are in place
Many countries have incorporated the human rights to water and sanitation into their constitutions, legislation and policies, ensuring that these services are prioritized, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable groups. A solid understanding of human rights requirements has influenced how budgets are formulated and allocated, directing attention to the importance of prioritizing water for personal and domestic uses.
Confirmation of water and sanitation as human rights has also proven to be a powerful advocacy tool. Civil society organizations in particular, but also other stakeholders, have used the human rights framework to demand action where inequalities still exist, where public services are falling short, or where their voices are not adequately heard.
While we are still far from achieving SDG 6, in many places important progress has been made in extending access to safe water and sanitation. When Covid struck, knowing that water and sanitation are inalienable human rights, several States took explicit decisions to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized, to prohibit disconnections, or to ensure all households had access to water to support handwashing.
The work of SWA engages political leaders at the highest levels of decision making. Why is it important to work at that level to ensure universal access to water and sanitation?
Too often, access to water and sanitation, or the lack of access, is treated as a problem of engineering and technology. Equally often, the problem is defined as a lack of financial resources. I acknowledge that engineering, technology and money are important dimensions of assuring access to water and sanitation, but I believe the greatest barrier to achieving SDG 6 is political.
Who has access to services, and who does not? Who decides whether to extend services to certain communities and neighborhoods, or how to allocate available water between different uses? Who determines the budget for water and sanitation services?
These are often political decisions, and at SWA we believe that when political will is mobilized to prioritize water and sanitation, the technology, the solutions, and the financing, follows. Insisting on water and sanitation as human rights has a great impact on how these political decisions are made. For instance, in examining overall water availability, and the water needs of different industries, human rights law provides that water for personal and domestic uses should be prioritized.
As I have said earlier, human rights law also demands a focus on the most marginalized and vulnerable people, pushing us to examine the underlying discriminatory norms and practices that lead to particular communities lacking access to services. On the positive side, we know that when leaders have decided that water and sanitation for all is a national priority, huge strides are made.
How is the global water and sanitation sector enduring the economic crisis?
These are not easy times. Like many other sectors, ours has seen a downturn in available resources, which is alarming when we are less than 8 years away from our 2030 deadline to achieve universal access. In times of economic crisis, again we see the importance of staying true to the human rights framework. With a human rights approach, States have clear obligations to adhere to certain standards – for instance, ensuring that there is no discrimination, that minimum essential levels of water are available to households for personal and domestic uses, that water and sanitation facilities are equitably distributed and affordable. While there can be difficult, complex policy decisions to make when resources are scarce, human rights provide a guide for navigating such circumstances and upholding the rights of all people.
I acknowledge that engineering, technology and money are important dimensions of assuring access to water and sanitation, but I believe the greatest barrier to achieving SDG 6 is political
At the same time, our sector is continually working to ensure that we strengthen systems, that good governance structures are in place and that the concept of accountability is fully embraced. With such measures, we make the sector more attractive to financing, even in times of economic crisis. The clear message that came out of our recent Sector Ministers Meeting was the importance of strengthening the enabling environment for the realization of the rights to water and sanitation as a critical element of securing resources for sustainable and progressively improved levels of access.
SWA’s global study on external perceptions of water, sanitation and hygiene looks into improving communications about WASH with non-WASH audiences. Why is it important to engage with other sectors?
The UN Sustainable Development Goals – from climate action to gender equality and economic growth – are deeply intertwined and are intended to be achieved together. However, we have all been guilty of tunnel-vision, with decision-makers ineffectively pursuing one goal at the exclusion of others. We cannot achieve climate goals where countries are facing water scarcity, or gender equality when women and girls are blocked from education and employment opportunities due to the lack of period-friendly sanitation. We need to change our mindsets, the way we act, the way we plan and work to accomplish more, together to achieve the world we want.
People from the economic development sector were more interested in arguments for water, and the potential economic returns on water service delivery
What we found was fascinating, and eye-opening. The benefits of these essential services seem so obvious and uncontroversial to us, but we were told, among more positive reactions, that water and sanitation are: “Too expensive.” “Nice to have, but unnecessary.” “Less important than tackling climate change, a global pandemic and slow economic development.”
Through constant dialogue and collaboration I am confident that by looking at the problem from new angles, we will find new solutions
We hope that engaging differently with other sectors will help to bridge those divides, - this is precisely why we undertook this study. To harness the power of intersectoral collaboration, we need to be more deliberate in understanding the motivations and priorities in other sectors and explain the relevance of water and sanitation in more persuasive ways.
The perception of many decision-makers in other sectors when it comes to investing in water, sanitation and hygiene were eye-opening for us working in the water and sanitation sector, where the benefits of these essential services seem obvious and uncontroversial
What are some messaging recommendations coming out from the study?
The study was built around structured interviews with experts in fields including economic development, education, health, climate and human rights, across 90 countries.
interests – health, for example, unsurprisingly understood exactly why the water and sanitation are critical for improved health, and identified them on their own list of priorities. Indeed, they emphasized the need for sanitation and hygiene for better health outcomes recommending messages that highlight the risks of poor services, focusing on the human costs of inadequate service provision. On the other hand, people from the economic development sector were more interested in arguments for water, and the potential economic returns on water service delivery. They felt that their sector is more likely to respond to messaging that focuses on the risk of inaction of improving services, specifically the financial costs of inaction. On the other hand they see the hygiene element of the sector as relatively less important to their work, and would benefit from communications and analysis that explains how improved hygiene services can increase economic productivity.
Interestingly, the climate sector did not mention water and sanitation as a way to deliver one of their top global priorities – climate resilience – which suggests they are yet to understand (or be convinced of) how these services can contribute. This is critical knowledge for us, as Sanitation and Water for All steps up to the challenge of working on climate issues. There are vast areas of untapped opportunity for SWA’s communications and advocacy here to clarify the direct beneficial link between access to sustainable and resilient water and sanitation improvements and climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation.
Bringing the discussion back to human rights, interviewees identified that water, sanitation and hygiene help to create safer societies, particularly for marginalized groups. Human rights experts were the most likely sector to consider framing messages around gender and the safety of women with respect to access to water and sanitation, as well as identifying that water and sanitation provision are essential for protecting the most marginalized and vulnerable people in society. A human rights expert also suggested that SWA consider using a risk timescale, highlighting the long-term risks of poor services.
As communicators in the WASH sector, we must realize there is even less of a one-size-fits-all approach when trying to engage those outside our sector – and that if we make the effort to understand our audience, and get it right, it has potential to tap into vast resource of talent and expertise.
Essentially this study has shown us that better communications to a wider audience on the benefits of water and sanitation can provide a dual benefit. We can work towards efforts to address inequalities through collaborating with other sectors, at the same time increasing water and sanitation as a political priority.
What are your expectations for global water and sanitation in the next five years?
The work that we are doing with SWA, working with all the different stakeholders both within the water and sanitation sector, and way beyond the sector through issues such as the environment, health, financing and education is giving us insights into what is required to promote and support water and sanitation. The job ahead of us, to achieve SDG 6 by 2030 is vast, requiring all hands on deck. Through constant dialogue and collaboration I am confident that by looking at the problem from new angles, we will find new solutions, and strengthen the political will to get the job done.
As communicators in the WASH sector, we must realize there is even less of a one-size-fits-all approach when trying to engage those outside our sector
This is critical as the climate crisis worsens day by day and year on year. Changing weather and rainfall patterns is putting pressure on existing water and sanitation service delivery as much through the risk of flooding as through the risk of drought. For those who still do not have access to water and sanitation, climate change is rendering them even more vulnerable, and increasing the costs of gaining access. We must do more to recognize water and sanitation, not only as impacted by climate change, but also holding potential solutions to help establish more sustainable, resilient systems. Globally, we must be confident that we are able to work with complexity and diversity, working through a multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, process than sticking to our silos, solving only one problem at a time.
Realizing the human rights to water and sanitation is not a simple act. It demands long-term commitment to good governance, transparency, and a focus on vulnerable and marginalized people. Even once we have achieved universal access to water and sanitation, we cannot rest, as these services are highly complex, and require constant updating, maintenance, operation. Challenges from the changing climate will be felt in how water and sanitation services are accessed. But we at SWA are learning that the challenge, the need to collaborate to achieve our goals also has a positive side. Collaboration brings people together, and solving problems collectively becomes a habit, which can be put to good use for issues way beyond water and sanitation!